In her fifth month of pregnancy, Dana Edell learned that she was carrying a boy. Her parents, who are Conservative Jews, asked about the ritual circumcision.
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“Well, what if I’m considering not circumcising?” Edell recalled saying. “My parents looked at me like I had just said, ‘Well, what if I’m considering sacrificing him to Satan?'”
For thousands of years, Jewish families have marked the beginning of a boy’s life with a bris ceremony on the eighth day after birth. A bris includes a circumcision performed by a mohel, or a ritual circumciser, and a baby naming. The practice is rooted in Genesis, when God instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and all of his descendants as a sign of their contract with God.
But some Jewish parents, aghast at what they see as unnecessary infliction of pain or even mutilation, are retreating from the ancient ritual. Some are choosing to forgo the bris in favor of a medical circumcision. Others are opting out of circumcision altogether.
This change in the Jewish community has paralleled an American trend. For much of the 20th century, the consensus was to circumcise. But since the 1970s, the conventional wisdom has shifted a bit: The American Academy of Pediatrics said in 2012 that while the benefits outweighed the risks, it would not “recommend universal newborn circumcision.”
Medicaid no longer covers circumcision in a number of states, and in the past four decades, the percentage of newborns who are circumcised has dropped by 6 percentage points, according to an analysis published in 2014 in the medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Much of that can be attributed to a growing Hispanic immigrant population, a group that historically circumcises less.
The science around the medical benefits of circumcision in the United States is inconclusive, though the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that it can help prevent some sexually transmitted infections like HIV, as well as penile cancer and urinary tract infections.
“I think there was a time when all American baby boys were circumcised, of all religions,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in North America. “Now it’s a choice. It’s a decision.”
“I talk to a lot of families that really struggle with this decision,” said Dr. Emily Blake, a New York-based OB/GYN who is also trained as a mohel in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist traditions. She has been performing the bris ceremony since 1990.
The questions parents consider range from the practical – How much will it hurt? – to the existential – Will my son even be Jewish?
Edell, 41, who lives in Brooklyn and works as the executive director of a young feminists’ group called Spark Movement, is raising her son as a single mother. She described the decision around circumcision as “easily the most challenging and stressful” one she had made as a parent. (Her son is only 15 months old.) Edell grew up in an observant Jewish family; she went to a Jewish school and to Jewish summer camp.
“I knew that I wanted to raise my child Jewish and in a Jewish home. And yet I’m also a feminist and activist, and believe very strongly in the right to your own body,” she said.
She decided not to circumcise, a choice she said her parents eventually accepted. Instead she had a “gentle bris” ceremony with alternative ritual objects: a pomegranate, a gold kiddush cup, and a large ceramic bowl filled with water to wash the baby’s feet, an ancient act of welcoming the stranger.
Edell cut the pomegranate, a totem of fertility with its plentiful seeds, while her mother held her son.
There is no reliable data on the percentage of American Jewish boys who are circumcised each year. But there are some indicators to suggest why circumcision may be subject to increasing debate: A Pew survey of American Jews in 2013 revealed a significant rise in secular Jews who are marrying outside the faith, and roughly a third of intermarried Jews who are raising children say they are not raising them Jewish. Only 19 percent of American Jews said that observing Jewish law was an essential part of what being Jewish means. (In contrast, 42 percent said “having a good sense of humor” was essential.)
“They’re inadvertent trailblazers. They are certainly pushing the boundary of who can be a Jew,” said Rabbi Peter Schweitzer of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan. Schweitzer does alternative ceremonies for people who choose not to circumcise.
Of course, there have not been changes across the board. For Orthodox families, which constitute about 10 percent of the American Jewish population, the traditional bris remains immutable.
“You have a boy, you have a bris,” said Cantor Philip Sherman, an Orthodox mohel who estimates he’s performed more than 21,000 bris ceremonies. Those who choose to opt out “don’t have a connection to their Jewish heritage.”
“They don’t know how important and significant this is,” he said. “If they did, they wouldn’t take the position they’re taking.”
Even for some progressive Jews, circumcising a son and holding a bris remains a quintessential part of being a Jewish parent. Sarah-Kay Lacks, who works at JCC Manhattan and calls her family “post-denominational,” said her son’s bris was a euphoric experience. Others speak about it similarly.
“There’s a lot of vulnerability and anxiety” after a birth, Jacobs said. The bris makes it possible “to ritualize that you’re part of something larger, you’re part of a people – past, present and future.”
Rabbis and public health experts interviewed said that the great majority of Jewish parents still circumcise, and opting out remains almost taboo in much of the mainstream. A number of parents did not want to speak on the record about their decision, and some rabbis who had done alternative bris ceremonies asked not to be named publicly.
“Right now, there is a ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ policy within much of institutional Judaism when it comes to parents skipping circumcision,” said Rebecca Wald, the founder of Beyond the Bris, an online community for parents who are questioning circumcision.
On forums like Beyond the Bris, in conversations and blog posts, Jewish parents argue against circumcision for both medical and social reasons. Some discuss keeping babies’ “natural” bodies intact and raise questions about preventable pain and trauma.
Others see circumcision as an outdated practice. Among liberal Jews who have sought to make other aspects of Judaism more egalitarian, the bris also raises a feminist question: Why should the most sacred act of Judaism, the linking of a child to the covenant, apply only to boys?
A variety of alternative ceremonies for girls have blossomed in the Reform movement. Since it is a new ritual, there is no standard practice, Jacobs said. Some parents wash the baby girl’s feet as a symbol of sacred welcome; some wrap the baby in a tallit, or prayer shawl; others light a candle, in honor of the new light in the community.
Even secular Jews, who do not keep kosher or go to synagogue, can face a wrenching decision over circumcision.
A 46-year-old father who asked to be identified only as Aaron because he was discussing intimate details about his son said he was surprised by how powerfully he felt about circumcising. Raised in California by a father who was a German Jewish refugee and a feminist Jewish mother, he said he grew up “standard American Reform.”
“For me, this wasn’t about a covenant with God, because I’m secular,” he said. “It was really about identification as a Jew, at the most visceral, embodied level.”
Aaron’s wife, who is not Jewish and grew up in a country where circumcision was not the norm, was opposed to it. She did not want to inflict pain on her newborn baby. The decision became “the hardest thing my wife and I have ever had to deal with,” Aaron said.
Ultimately, eight months into his wife’s pregnancy, Aaron agreed not to circumcise their son.
“I didn’t want it to end our marriage and tear apart our family,” he said.